From Abacus to Circle Time: A Short History of the Primary School (BBC Radio 4 Documentary Series)

Programme illustration (boy using abacus in the last century)

In anticipation of the final publication of the Cambridge Review of Primary Education, and ministerial response to the Rose Review of the Primary curriculum, BBC Radio 4 are presenting three programmes on the history of primary education.

The presenter, education journalist Mike Baker, traces changes in attitudes to primary teaching from the Victorian era through to the present day in the series entitled From Abacus to Circle Time: A Short History of the Primary School. 

The first programme examines learning in the Victorian schoolroom, and includes recollections of primary schooling between the 1930s and 1960s, including those of Baroness Shirley Williams.

Baker has also written a tie-in article in the Guardian newspaper: Why is primary schooling still based on Victorian policies?. Quoting Robin Alexander, leader of the Cambridge Primary Review group, Baker suggests that some essential features of primary education, such as generalist teachers and the funding distinction between primary and secondary schooling, are based in outmoded policy decisions from the past.


The article presents a very brief overview of developments in primary education, which will be explored in the Radio 4 programmes. Interestingly, although the Plowden Report (1967) is mentioned, there is no reference to its predecessor, the 'Hadow Report' (1931).


This is, however, referred to in the first programme, in that the Hadow Report laid the foundation for the distinctive phases of primary and secondary schooling, and outlined recommendations for the primary curriculum and primary teacher training, which bear comparison with many of the proposals from both the Rose and Cambridge reviews. However, as Baker's article suggests, the existence of the ‘11+' examinations for grammar school entrance prevented the implementation of these proposals, and further reforms to primary schooling did not take place until the publication of Plowden.


Next week's Radio 4 programme discusses the post-Plowden era of so-called ‘progressive education'.


A debate will around the series will take place on 30th September. See the BBC website for details.

Authors :

Mike Baker

Other Contributor :

Robin Alexander

Source :

Radio 4

Publisher :


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